On June 8, The Wall Street Journal broke the spectacular story that China had "reached a secret agreement" with Cuba to build a new spy base on Cuba, just a hundred miles from Florida. The timing of the story was right. The story, it turns out, was not.
The timing was suspiciously perfect. It broke just ten days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to arrive in Beijing for talks with senior Chinese officials. The meeting was a second attempt at talks after the first were canceled in February when the US military shot down a Chinese balloon they claim was a surveillance balloon spying on US territory.
Each time the Secretary of State is scheduled to go to China for talks to de-escalate the dangerous tension between the two countries, attempts of varying degrees of success are made to derail them by accusing China of spying on the US.
The first attempt succeeded. Blinken canceled his highly anticipated trip to China in February following the shooting down of the Chinese balloon. But the spy balloon story was a fabrication.
Four objects were shot down by the US and Canada over their airspace in those busy days. But Biden admitted that the three later objects that were shot down “were most likely research balloons, not spy craft.” The US “intelligence community’s assessment is that the three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific studies.”
As for the big one, the one the US still claims to be a spy balloon, they knew all along that China had not deliberately sent it over US airspace. Far from being taken by surprise, as they portrayed, “U.S. military and intelligence agencies had been tracking it for nearly a week, watching as it lifted off from its home base on Hainan Island near China’s south coast.” And they knew the intended destination was never the US. US officials “are now examining the possibility that China didn’t intend to penetrate the American heartland with their airborne surveillance device.” The US monitored the flight path that was taking it to Guam when “strong winds . . . appear to have pushed the balloon south into the continental United States.”
The second attempt was less successful: Blinken did not cancel his rescheduled trip to China.
There is a long history of sabotaging peace talks and diplomacy with fabricated infringements and atrocities. What crime the enemy is accused of depends on what A.B. Abrams has called the "greater vilifying metanarrative." The government, intelligence community and media continuously echo a violation or atrocity until a pattern is formed in the public imagination that predisposes the public to believe the current accusation.
Ceasefire talks in the Korean war were sabotaged by fabricated stories of a North Korean massacre of American prisoners that had been set up by previous manufactured stories of North Korean massacres. Stories of killing babies in their incubators that played a critical role in ensuring a war on Iraq were believable because of previous manufactured stories of Saddam’s inhumane treatment of people. Talks with Iran are frequently aborted by reports of clandestine nuclear activity that succeed in their intended effect because of all the previous manufactured stories of Iranian nuclear weapons activity.
When the target is China, the fabricated story is frequently espionage.
But the second espionage story turns out to be no more true nor dramatic than the first. The Wall Street Journal identifies the eavesdropping facility as a "base." It claims the report is a breaking story because the base is just being "establish[ed]" and that it represents "a brash new geopolitical challenge" and "an unprecedented new threat." It then goes on to report that "The revelation about the planned site has sparked alarm within the Biden administration" because the "proximity to the US mainland" would "allow Chinese intelligence services to scoop up electronic communications throughout the southeastern US, where many military bases are located, and monitor US ship traffic."
Not one of these alarming claims is true.
First, the facility falls well short of a "base." A Reuters reporter, who was able to approach the site, described it as a "rusted white metal dome" and "large parabolic antennas." Curiously, "No one Reuters spoke with around the base had seen or heard reference to alleged Chinese involvement . . . in recent years.
Second, the report did not "spark alarm within the Biden administration" because they knew all along it was not true. "I’ve seen that press report," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby simply said, "it’s not accurate." A Biden administration official told Reuters that the media report "does not comport with our understanding."
It is also not a breaking story because it is also not new. Kirby says that "After the first stories appeared, we worked very, very hard and as expeditiously as we could with the intelligence community to try to get some context downgraded so that we could provide it over the weekend." The context shows that the US has long known about the facility. It is not, as The Wall Street Journal reports, just being established, and it is not "an unprecedented new threat." The White House says "that there’s been no new deal, and that the facilities have been in place for years."
Last year, a Federal Communications Commission document cited a 2018 report that said that China "maintains physical presences at Soviet-era intelligence facilities at Bejucal in what appears to be a signals intelligence collection operation." A Biden administration official told the Associated Press that "the U.S. intelligence community has been aware of China’s spying from Cuba and a larger effort to set up intelligence-gathering operations around the globe for some time." It is "not a new development," the official said.
US knowledge of the installation goes back even farther than 2018. In 2016, Senator Marco Rubio listed as a requirement for any negotiations with Cuba that Cuba "kicks out this Chinese listening station in Bejucal."
A senior administration official has also said that "US intelligence indicates that China has long maintained intelligence facilities in Cuba and that they were expanded in 2019."
The Wall Street Journal also claims that the facility would allow China to "scoop up electronic communications." But, as the US Department of Defense said of the alleged spy balloon, "it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit." Former senior CIA analyst on Cuba, Fulton Armstrong, told Reuters that "A listening post would be of marginal value (to China) in today’s technology."
And to the inaccuracy of the report must be added the hypocrisy. What if China had a spy base in Cuba? The US has little right to complain about what they do every day. Commenting on the spy balloon story, Retired Ambassador Chas Freeman, who accompanied Nixon to China in 1972, told me that the US "mount[s] about three reconnaissance missions a day by air or sea along China’s borders, staying just outside the 12-mile limit but alarming the Chinese, who routinely intercept our flights and protest our perceived provocations."
The US also spies on China by satellite. NBC’s Robert Windrem calls Washington’s "appetite for China’s secrets" "insatiable” and says that "spying on the People’s Republic of China has been one of the National Security Agency’s top priorities since it was established in 1952." China has also accused the US of frequently flying high-altitude balloons through their airspace.
The Wall Street Journal report is exaggerated and misleading in most of its details. And the leaks provided to the reporters by "US officials familiar with highly classified intelligence" were perfectly timed with Secretary of State Blinken’s attempt to restart discussions with the most senior Chinese officials. The story fits a long pattern of manufactured crimes intended to prevent planned or promising talks. The crime that is frequently manufactured for China is espionage. Whenever Blinken and the Biden administration plan talks to manage the conflict with China, China is accused of spying on the US.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.